How to Effectively Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Your Learning


Retrieval practice is one of the most researched learning and teaching strategies. It is highly recommended by educators and educational psychologists because it has proven to be one of many effective learning strategies that students can use when learning a new skill or preparing for an exam. Moreover, teachers can facilitate students’ learning experience by using retrieval techniques to check for understanding as new topics are being taught.

Retrieval-based learning is highly recommended within the education community because it helps students become better learners. Schools make students take exams several times within a school year. Students get caught up in the exam preparation process, trying to squeeze in as much information as they can in their brain and then forgetting everything soon after the test is over.

Students inevitably fall into a pattern of studying, reading, rereading aimlessly, and cramming. They may get high scores, but did learning take place at any point within this process?

Related reading: What Is Active Recall and How to Use It to Improve Your Studying?

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice has to do with reconstructing knowledge from memory. This presupposes that a student is already familiar with the lessons and topics. In a way, retrieval can be seen as a memory exercise. It is helpful for fact-based information, as well as more conceptual content.

It is often compared to passive learning techniques such as reading, rereading, and reviewing. As the name suggests, “retrieval” involves unearthing already acquired knowledge—digging it up from memory and bringing it to the surface. If anything, reading is just one step of the retrieval process. Based on cognitive science research, the entire process of recalling and retrieving information boosts long-term learning. Learning occurs when data is retrieved from the memory.

Retrieval Practice for Teachers 

Teachers can enhance students’ learning through retrieval practice. Teachers have to consistently try to extract information from students as they are teaching a topic. This can be done by giving check-up quizzes before proceeding to a new chapter or having a closed-notes-closed books discussion after finishing a chapter of a novel. It involves the same process of trying to recall information to answer questions posed by the teacher.

One benefit of having teachers use retrieval techniques is that they can provide feedback immediately. They can verify whether the information that students shared in class is correct.

How it Works 

Retrieval is the process of continuously trying to pull up information that is buried in a person’s memory. The more this is done, the better and easier the retrieval process becomes. It is a science-backed learning strategy that expands the brain’s capacity to store information.

When we talk about maximizing a brain’s capacity through retrieval, it has to do with activating various parts of the brain. It’s about keeping them active throughout the entire learning process, which is what retrieval does. It’s like when a basketball player is practicing or training for a game, the athlete has to do drills, build muscle, and do conditioning exercises to be in the best shape possible. For the brain to be in top form, it has to be kept active.

The retrieval process pulls information out of the brain instead of pushing information in (which is what happens when students read and reread). Brain capacity is not about having a lot of space for data (like a hard drive). It’s about optimizing it to function like a computer, which can store data and process it, organize it, and use it.  



 – Make concept maps by linking main ideas together. Circle two related vital concepts, draw a line or arrow to connect both, then write short phrases that explain how they are related. Write it in your own words.  

 – Spaced retrieval Do retrieval in bursts. This spacing causes students to deliberately forget some of the lessons so that when the time comes to retrieve information, they have to work hard. Think of this as a practice or preparation for an exam.

 – Recall from memory. Read or listen to a lecture, then try to recall as much as you can. Write it down if it helps.

 – Keep in mind that the more you retrieve, the better and more accessible the information becomes. For performers and athletes, this is something like muscle memory. They train consistently with varying levels of difficulty. As their skills improve, the movements become fluid—it becomes easier for a ballerina to execute a split; the basketball becomes an extension of a player’s limbs.

What Not to Do

Reading books and listening to lectures is part of the process of acquiring information. Students have to forgo restudying, rereading, and reviewing the same materials for actual learning to occur. This process is not that effective because this approach is not appropriate for testing. When taking a test, students have to answer questions using the knowledge that they have learned (which is, in a way, a process of retrieval).

Do these as you go through course content in class, as it is the time to gain new knowledge. Read lecture notes, presentation slides, but do not rely on these to retain information in the long run.

Tools and Tips for Retrieval Practice

There are different ways to do retrieval practice. Here are some ways on how to use retrieval practice:

  • Answer practice tests at the end of each chapter. This promotes test-enhanced learning, the process of learning by answering tests.
  • Make your own questions and answer them if practice tests are not available.
  • Prepare your own flashcards. Write essential terms and concepts on flashcards. Quiz yourself on the definition of the terms. According to research, quizzing yourself helps jog the memory and is an excellent strategy to remember fact-based information for assessments. Take it a step further by trying to borrow someone else’s flashcards. They might have different sets of questions or have some concepts that you could not include in your stack.
  • Brain dump. Before starting a new topic, write down everything you know and remember from the previous lesson.
  • Feedback. Verify whether the retrieved information is correct. Once you’ve answered a question, refer back to the notes to check if you’re right.
  • Create concept maps for critical thinking questions.
  • Summary. After reading a chapter, write everything you remember on a separate piece of paper. As you are doing this, do not look at the original text.


Benefits of Using Retrieval Practice 

The learning process is quite complex. Just because a student was able to memorize a chapter does not mean that they have learned it and understood it. Below are some benefits of using retrieval practice:

  • Suitable for long term information and knowledge retention
  • Enhance learning
  • Reduce forgetting
  • A healthy amount of struggle. This refers to the process of “retrieving.” Retrieving the correct information is a difficult task. Still, this healthy amount of effort jogs the brain, and when done repeatedly, can strengthen the brain’s capacity to store and retrieve information.
  • Self-assessment. When students answer practice tests and verify the answers, they take responsibility for their own learning. This is a metacognitive approach.  
  • Enhance the depth of learning
  • Test preparation tool. Retrieval practice simulates the experience of taking a test.

Retrieval Practice and Learning

Students often attribute learning to read books, taking exams, and moving up a grade level. However, learning does not end once a student leaves the four walls of the school. Learning is actually a lifetime process. It is a process that happens daily for any person at any age. Just because a student has graduated does not mean that the learning stops.

Aside from helping students become better at studying, mastering retrieval practice helps students realize what they know. Once a student is done with a chapter, they gauge their mastery by checking how much of it they can recall. Similarly, Exams try to approximate how much a student has learned by seeing what they remember from an entire semester. As students go through each test item, they are forced to recall formulas and passages from books.


Using retrieval practice techniques helps build powerful learning and memory capacity. The ability to recall and retrieve information is a skill that needs to be used constantly in order to become better at it—as they say, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Retrieval practice supports long-term learning by treating learning as a skill that can be improved throughout a person’s lifetime. While it is primarily helpful to students, adults can benefit from retrieval practice when acquiring new skills and knowledge to advance their careers. 

Rather than relying on passively acquiring information, more focus should be placed on trying to recall and retrieve because it activates various parts of the brain that reading and reviewing do not.

Furthermore, the retrieval process teaches us that the degree of learning can be gauged based on the amount of information that can be retrieved, not by the amount of knowledge acquired. That is to say, it does not matter how many books and readings were read if none of that information is retrievable.